Hamilton faces public quizzing on sleaze claims

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Neil Hamilton, the Tory MP at the centre of the "cash for questions" allegations could be cross-examined in public under the terms of a Commons inquiry which were laid down last night for Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Ombudsman .

Sir Gordon was told by the Standards and Privileges Committee to go ahead with the inquiry as a matter of urgency. If he feels more evidence is necessary, the committee agreed to carry out any further interviews of witnesses in public. It could also mean interviewing other MPs alleged to have taken money from the lobbyist, Ian Greer.

The investigation was ordered by the committee after the intervention of the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, in a bid to settle the so-called "sleaze" allegations against MPs. It appears that the committee decided to go for a wide-ranging inquiry to clear up the speculation.

The claims that a former whip, David Willetts, intervened in an earlier inquiry chaired by Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, a senior Tory MP, will be dealt with separately.

If there is a second investigation into the Willetts case, Sir Geoffrey, a senior member of the Standards and Privileges Committee will step down while it goes ahead. Sir Geoffrey has told colleagues he would welcome an inquiry to make it clear he had nothing to do with the terms of a minute by Mr Willetts which was leaked.

Tony Newton, chairman of the committee, said the Commissioner had been asked to investigate "as a matter of urgency" the allegations referred to by the Speaker over Mr Hamilton with a view to reporting to the committee as soon as possible. "Should a report from the commissioner lead them to judge it necessary to take evidence, the presumption would be that such hearings would be in public."

The committee will meet again today to decide with Sir Gordon whether additional powers or extra resources are necessary.

The Speaker made her intervention in an effort to allay fears that the controversy could hang over Parliament for the next six months during the run up to the general election. She said the "very serious" allegations "must be resolved as soon as possible".

The resumption of Parliament had been pre-empted by a news conference yesterday morning, at which Donald Dewar and Archie Kirkwood, the Labour and Liberal Democrat chief whips, urged a beefing up of the new machinery for enforcing parliamentary ethical standards.

It was only the second combined opposition offensive since the Scott report into the sale of arms to Iraq. As well as representing the Liberal Democrats, Mr Kirkwood also acts as unofficial shop steward for the other minor parties.

He and Mr Dewar asked for "clarification" of the powers of Sir Gordon, who was appointed earlier this year to police the new rules on MPs' conduct. The rules were brought in after Lord Nolan's inquiry into the original claims that Tory MPs were paid to ask parliamentary questions.

Mr Dewar cast doubt on whether Sir Gordon, "a part-time civil servant" would have the powers and resources to carry out a "comprehensive" inquiry. "I would stress that we have no criticism of Sir Gordon Downey," Mr Dewar said. "Our questions relate to the machinery and specifically to the scope, not the adequacy, of his inquiry."

Ms Boothroyd later told MPs that she hoped the Committee on Standards and Privileges - to which Sir Gordon reports - would make an early report to the House so that the "full nature and scope of any investigation it undertakes may be made known".

She promised that "all necessary steps" would be taken to ensure that the committee and Sir Gordon were "adequately staffed for whatever investigation they may undertake".

Ms Boothroyd also said the proceedings of the inquiry should be "as transparent as possible, so as to maintain public confidence".